“It’s about hopelessness and darkness,” says Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffat. “But in a fun way.”
He is speaking about the band’s seventh studio album As Days Get Dark which is set for release on 5 March on Rock Action. This will be their first album since The Last Romance in 2005. There is also a short tour planned for September closing at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom.
Despite them being a pinnacle group of the era, Aidan makes it clear that the aim for he and Malcolm Middleton is not to “recapture the 90s” but instead to create a distinctly new album, with new tools, sounds and a forward moving sense of exploration.
“This album feels like its own new thing to me,” he says. “It’s definitely Arab Strap, but an older and wiser one, and quite probably a better one.”
Across the eleven tracks, the band have tapped into what made so many people fall for them and stretched it out into new terrain. The deft mix of post-rock soundscapes, subtle electronics, clicking drum beats, swelling strings and Aidan Moffat’s incomparable half-sung, half-spoken vocals are all present, but so too is a variety of new additions from blasts of atmospheric saxophone to disco grooves.
“We had started before the pandemic,” Aidan told me, “we had three or four weeks of studio time left and we had to cancel them. Aye, it was annoying, we put them back six months. Most of the lyrics were written but as we recorded the vocals in the last few sessions last year, I started to notice things that applied to the things that were going on. The last song, Just Enough, there are a few wee bits in there. There’s a lot of hopelessness and despair on the record, I suppose we’ve just managed to fit in with the general mood of the land just now.”
Despite the tone of the songs, the production is rich and warm and drags you deep into the stories.
“That was what was exciting about doing another record after another 15 years of learning how to use a studio and rehearsing. I have a much different voice to what I had last time we did an Arab Strap record. What was great, it was me and Malcolm and Paul Savage, the same three people who did our first album, the same people making a record twenty-odd years later with all the new tools available to them.
“We never stopped making records, individually. At the time we split up we felt that whatever we did would be like a side project. We felt we’d come to the end, back then, but we both kept working so it’s not like we’ve been sitting idle for 15 years.
“It’s a very different world, society’s completely altered: the internet, social media, the way we communicate. When Arab Strap split up in 2006, social media was pretty much in it’s infancy, Facebook was just starting, we still had Friends Reunited… It was a much calmer society back then, it’s a very different world now.
“The last gig we played was in 2017 in Iceland, we realised that we wanted to play again but we didn’t want to just play old songs. We thought we’d try something new. We started (recording) in late 2019. It was pretty calm, it didn’t feel like a big event because Paul Savage, who I must have made seven records with in the past ten years. It was very much a relaxed atmosphere among friends, we weren’t nervous about Arab Strap reforming. It was a pretty natural step forward.
“We wanted to continue playing. The gigs were great and the live band we have are brilliant but we wanted to stick to the three who made the first album. Knowing that we have a band that we love helped to inform some of the arrangements and mixing because we know we have a band who can do a really good job.”
The album opens with The Turning Of Our Bones, a comically dark metaphor for the band’s own rebirth that Aidan describes as being about “resurrection and shagging”. Widely covered upon its release with countless radio plays, it’s an immediate addition to some of the band’s greatest work, unfurling via hypnotic beats, infectious grooves and spiralling guitar lines as Aidan skips between narrator and crooner. It sets the tone for an album that often plunges into dark territory, although this doesn’t necessarily manifest via stilted morbidity but simply by being rooted in nocturnal exploration.
Another Clockwork Day is a poignant song about a man fantasising in the night as his partner sleeps. Although of course like a lot of Aidan’s lyrics, it’s not simply about just that. Instead the song, backed by Malcolm Middleton’s sparse yet delicately twisting acoustic guitar, explores nostalgia, lost time gone by, love, an ever-changing world and nocturnal creatures of habit.
“Nightlife often inspires me,” Aidan confides, “but there’s not much of that right now, some of it comes from books. Kebabylon was inspired by a piece about London after dark. It was about street sweepers and one of them said something like ‘We’re here to protect you and keep your secrets.’ I thought that was an amazing way to look at it.
“It used to be that all the songs were autobiographical and I was very strict about everything being true and honest. I couldn’t possibly write the same songs as twenty years ago and it all comes from different places now.”
Here Comes Comus! is an ode to the debauched night out that Aidan is missing in current times.
“It’s a song about the god of nocturnal excess and my inability to ever refuse him. It takes place in a pub, a club, and city alleyways, all the places I’d hoped we’d be able to enjoy again by now. It’s been so long since I’ve had a big night out that listening to it, now, it seems almost nostalgic. He still pops round to see me at home now and again, but I know he’s holding back and planning for the future, and one day soon we’ll dance again.”
Fable of the Urban Fox shifts from a folk shuffle to a soaring string-laden charge and powerfully uses the story as a metaphor for the racist treatment of migrants, while Sleeper tackles themes of addiction and self-harm over Malcolm’s hypnotic recreation of a rail journey.
“We always have the music first. I don’t like to write words until we have some sort of demo ready because I like to respond to the music. There was the rhythm that came first, made me think of trains and, slowly, the story came from there.”
I also express my admiration for Tears On Tour as the duo examine just what drives our wide and varied range of emotions.
“Aye, a lot of people have mentioned that song, which is strange, because that almost wasn’t on the album the night before we did the mastering, that wasn’t on the record!” he laughs. “I think we decided to put it on on the morning of the mastering. I’m very glad we did because people seem to be responding to that.”
Aidan’s lyrics create an array of vivid images and his voice oozes drama, perhaps not surprising when he reveals what music initially inspired the young Aidan Moffat.
“The first song I ever heard, as a wee boy, was Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina. I remember thinking it was incredible. I loved the drama and the strings and, to this day, I’m a sucker for strings, it had quite a profound effect on me. The first three albums I had were James Bond’s Greatest Hits. I still love it, the early Bond themes were brilliant and I still love them. Again, they’re all big, sweeping strings and drama.”
I also note that there is also a strong folk element in his story-telling.
“People used to say that about Arab Strap when we were younger and I never understood it,” he admits. “It’s not something I knew much about or listened to. The more I’ve learned about folk music, as I’ve got older, I understand that. The story telling aspect is very much a part of everyone’s culture and there’s the Scottish thing that I wasn’t really aware of, that I was doing it. I understand, now, where that comes from.
“The language and using my own accent is a long tradition, of all cultures, in folk music and to talk about themselves, their environment, their place and to use their language. I didn’t understand it until later but there’s definitely elements of folk there.”
Looking ahead, Aidan says he and Malcolm can’t wait to get back on the road again, when it is safe.
“We’ve got a tour booked for September. I hope that’ll happen but it’s difficult to know for sure. If we have to wait a wee bit longer there’s nothing we can really do about that. We love the band and we’re really looking for to playing with the live band again, we’re all desperate to go on tour.
“I never wanted to play live. Malcolm and I had no intention of playing a gig until Chemikal Underground demanded that we do. I was terrified to begin with bit I’ve come to love it, as the years went by.
“It’s quite a different thing, making a record. You control the environment in every sense. You can influence emotions more but, when you’re playing live, it’s a much more direct thing. It’s just a different thing. When you’re live you want the audience to have a good night as well, so it’s very much a give-and-take relationship.
“Our first gig was broadcast on John Peel and I was absolutely terrified!” he laughs. “That’s all I wanted when we first started, put out an album and maybe get a Peel session and then life will go back to normal. We achieved that within a month of the first album!”
As Days Get Dark is out on Fri 5 March 2021 on Rock Action. Read our review here
Arab Strap will also play Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom on Fri 10 Sep 2021 (subject to pandemic restrictions)